Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Amino Yoshihiko (12): Capitalism and muen

The problem of how muen relates to capitalism in Amino's thinking is almost as controversial as how it relates to the emperor. To put it simply, muen is, on the one hand, linked to an ancient freedom which Amino associates with "primitive communism". This freedom is said to derive from a feeling of the sacred which creates a realm in which secular hierarchies and laws melt away and property relations no longer hold. This is the concept of muen used when Amino claims that the “primitive” (muen) yields to the “civilized” in the course of the late middle ages, the latter being represented by the establishment of a burgeoning monetary economy and the hegemony of the worldview of an “agricultural” settled population. But on the other hand, the realm of muen is also described as the birth-place of capitalism and the market. Amino even goes so far as to claim that goods can only turn into commodities by passing through a realm of muen where they are liberated from their ties to their producers and previous owners - a claim which suggests that the principle of muen cannot possibly have decayed or weakened in the late middle ages.

The problem is how these two aspects of muen hang together. How can muen be a stand-in for communism if  it is also conductive of capitalism? Was Amino's prime concern to explain the emergence of capitalism in medieval Japan or to excavate ancient layers of consciousness in order to find a radical idea of freedom that could serve as a counter-weight to or relativize the capitalist society of today?

The two ideas of muen

Amino's thinking wasn't static. Many claim that a shift occurred in the course of the 80s and 90s and that "muen as freedom" became downplayed in favor of "muen as capitalism" (e.g. Sakurai 2001:452ff). This may be so. However, as a look in almost any of his books befinning with the 1978 Muen Kugai Raku will show, he never really relinquished any of these ideas of muen. The concern with the capitalist market is evident already in Muen Kugai Raku and the idea of muen as a "no-property" is prominent even in the late books.

A good place to assess the extent of Amino's shift is Nihon chûsei toshi no sekai (2001) in which a series of texts dealing with muen from the late 70s to the mid-90s are collected. In one of the newer texts (”Chûsei toshi kenkyû no mondaiten to tenbô” from 1996) Amino looks back on the earlier texts, stating that he still maintains that places in nature such as mountains and riverbanks had a sacred quality in medieval times which made them function as asylums. However, he now believes that it is too simplistic to draw a direct line from that to ”freedom”, ”peace” and ”equality” as he did in Muen Kugai Raku (Amino 2001:411). The reason is the link to capitalism.

The realm of muen contributed to the emergence of capitalism in many ways. In a basic sense, it was only by passing through "the world of gods and buddhas" that things could be severed from their links to the concrete human beings who had produced, owned or used them, and become commodities. This was why the early markets tended to spring up in places like riverbanks, in front of temples or in marginal spaces on the outskirts of the settled communities. Only there could people engage each others as strangers, without consideration for each other's private circumstances. In addition, the goods offered up to the kami or emperor was an important source of trade and commerce. Thus the imperial, religious and later also private storehouses served as an early form of banks, offering to lend rice in return for rent (suiko). During the middle ages, the temples in particular played an important role in finance. Religious networks for collecting charity (kanjin) were an important source of trade networks, monks often played a central role in trade and money-lending, and ideologies legitimating commercialism were fashioned by the Ikkôshû and Nichiren. The system of making offerings of salt or fish to the kami, emperor or local leaders was also, as I've mentioned in earlier posts, the origin of the kugonin system.

What happens in the late middle ages - Amino talks about a crucial transition period in the 14th century - is that commercialism liberates itself from its religious underpinnings. The irony of history was that the monetary economy which had been born out of the realm of muen started to undermine the prestige of Gods and Buddhas. The increase in literacy contributed to this erosion of the prestige of religion. The resulting picture is somewhat reminiscent of Weber's thesis of the birth of capitalism from a protestant "ethic" from which it then becomes independent, forming an autonomous system without any need of religious anchorings. I am also reminded of Marcel Mauss' idea of the religious origin of economic value, described in The Gift.

Muen, then, was the birthplace of capitalism in Japan. The freedom of capitalism grew out of the freedom of the asylum. In his often stated approval of Nakazawa Shin'ichi's drastic remark that "muen, that's capitalism, isn't it" (e.g. Amino 2007:415), Amino even goes a step further, identifying muen with capitalism. Rather than seeing muen as itself capitalistic, however, it seems more useful to view it as a precondition for capitalism. That muen is hardly in itself capitalistic is clear from Amino's examples. Thus he usually describes it as a kind of commons, a sphere of life with no masters and no owners (mu-shu), free from the logic of property and secular hierarchy.

This can be seen even in very late texts, for instance when he - following Katsumata Shizuo - describes the logic behind the robber expression otosu, literally meaning "letting something fall or drop (to the ground)" but used by robbers in the sense of liberating objects from their owners. Things that were found lying on the ground were regarded as without owner, as gifts from the gods which were free to pick up for anyone who happened to find them. The expression otosu thus signified that the "dropped" goods had entered the commons, the world of muen where they no longer belonged to anybody. Similarly, the expression otoshiya was used for mountain huts in which such goods would be stored (Amino 2003:40ff). Many similar examples could be added to illustrate the idea of goods leaving the sphere of private possession and entering a world of free "communist" circulation. The one that comes first to mind to many is probably that of uchi-kowashi, an established form of protest by the common people whereby they would march to the house of, say a rice merchant hoarding rice to drive up prices, and destroy or distribute the goods in the store. A similar logic was at work in the eejanaika riots of the late bakumatsu era, when singing and chanting town people would dance into the houses of the wealthy and powerful, demanding food and drink, or clothes and other goods, only to consume it or give it away immediately, letting it circulate.

As for the future, Amino believes in continuing research in order to show how muen can also be a way of overcoming capitalism, ”to think further about the problem which I have indicated by such terms as muen, kugai, and raku, in order to reach a vantage point superceding capitalism” (Amino 2001:413).

Muen, then, is not identical to capitalism. It rather functions as a kind of "reset", cancelling out the existing secular ties of goods and thus freeing them up for new configurations in which they are inserted into new ties. Those ties can be those of the capitalist market but they can also be those of a variety of other logics, such as the redistributive logic of robbers or the popular justice of townspeople.

An aporia?

Still, the ambiguity in Amino's works as to whether muen is seen primarily as a sacred realm of freedom or as the seedbed of capitalism remains. This ambiguity entangles him in difficulties which almost seem aporetic (for criticism of Amino regarding this, see Oguma's interview in Amino 2002, esp. p.190). It also invites a variety of interpretations, depending on which conception of muen the interpreter favors. If one saves consistency by stressing the link to capitalism, then the role of freedom in Amino's thought is left unexplained. It is easy to find interpreters who downplay the aspect of muen as freedom, focusing instead almost entirely on the relation of muen to capitalism (e.g. Ozeki 2003). If on the other hand the question of freedom is focused, then the link to capitalism must be downplayed.

Muen as relation

One way to resolve the dilemma is to view muen as a relational concept. This is a perspective offered by the historian Sakurai Eiji. Although he himself is primarily interested in the link between muen and capitalism, his idea of muen is in my view supple enough to point towards a way of reconciling the two conceptions of muen. That he is far from ignoring the link between muen and "communism" is evident in the way he starts his commentary on one of Amino's book, namely by quoting a passage from Muen Kugai Raku in which Amino writes about the "ghostlike" shape of muen and mushoyû ("no-property") which follows private property like a shadow, ”constantly, quietly, or perhaps rising with a look of anger or resentment” (quoted in Sakurai 2001:449). Sakurai compares this to the ghost of communism in the Communist Manifesto. He then goes on to the problem that if muen is linked to capitalism it obviously makes no sense to assert, as Amino does, that muen is weakened or decays in the period from the late middle ages and onwards into the Edo period. Now my own solution to this dilemma, as mentioned, is to say that capitalism quickly developed into a system of its own no longer in need of sacred trappings. That way it obviously becomes possible to say that capitalism flourished in the Edo period while muen withered away. However, Sakurai shows that there is another solution. While Amino tends to think of muen as originating in an inherent sacred quality in certain places or people, he himself thinks of muen as a relational concept. In some cases muen arises because certain places are regarded as sacred, but that is by no means necessary. That refugees, for instance, can obtain asylum in a country is not because that country is ”sacred”. The country is not in itself a "place of no-relation" (muen no ba), but simply "unrelated" (muen) to the country of origin. In the same way, capitalism and market relations arise in places outside the village community, not necessarily because such places are considered sacred in themselves but because they are outside and thus "unrelated" to the community (ibid 455f).

In Sakurai's version, this relational concept of muen amounts to a desacralization. Sacrality is no longer central to the idea of muen, as it is in Amino, since muen simply means that things are unrelated. With this redefinition, Sakurai has changed it into a concept very much suited to describing capitalist societies. He thus drops the assertion, so often heard in Amino, that the principle of muen decayed in the late middle ages. Even in the Edo-period, with its flourishing capitalism, muen was alive and well.

Let me now state my own interpretation. It differs slightly from Sakurai since I am less interested in capitalism and more interested in how muen functioned as an idea of freedom. I reject those passages in which Amino directly identifies muen with capitalism. Capitalism may very well have developed out of muen, but that does not mean that it is identical to it or that such a development is necessary. The freedom of capital is at most a  "fallen" version of the freedom offered by muen. It is "fallen" since it introduces new secular ties, generating its own losers and dependencies. A genuine muen would have to function as a shelter for all losers. Even losers in market exchange would be able to escape there and find a haven where the stigma of their defeat is erased.The muen of temples and other religious organizations should similarly be viewed as "fallen" since they create new hierarchies.

Like Sakurai, however, I too favor a relational concept of muen. Muen to me is essentially a "resetting" in which the norms and rules that determine our conduct and our status in ordinary everyday life are cancelled. This conception of muen is narrower than Amino's. I see muen as immensely difficult to institutionalize without compromising it. Outside natural settings, it probably always has an emphemeral, liminal quality, since it essentially consist in the operation of resetting through which a thing or a person passes before it once again "falls" and becomes entangled in new ties. Thus the resetting of mind before engaging in a musical performance could be described as a state of muen. Similarly, a game of chess during which players forget about the surrounding society is muen in relation to that society. The separate worlds created by these activities presuppose that the participants pass through a state of muen, but since the activities themselves tend to generate new ties among musicians and players, even they will in the long run be unable to realize muen except in an imperfect or "fallen" state.

The fact that I view muen as a liminal, threshold state (somewhat like Turner's state of "liminality") means that connotations of the sacred continue to color my concept of muen. Here too I differ from Sakurai. This sensation of the sacred, however, is not necessarily linked to any religious institution and is not nececcsarily accompanied by any thought of sacrality. It's an "everyday" sacrality. I believe that Amino himself uses the word "sacred" in this sense when he talks about "rivers and mountains" or the world of nature as sacred or when he claims that the outcasts were regarded with respect and awe because of their closeness to the sacred.

The larger picture

Presumably, one reason that Amino never felt the relation between the aspects of muen as freedom and as capitalism were acutely problematic was his preoccupation with deconstructing the idea of Japan as a unitary "island-country" based on rice agriculture and liberating himself from the productionist bias of Marxist historiography. Muen as an ancient idea of freedom was one way to achieve those ends, but so was paying attention to capitalism and other "non-agriculturalist" ways of life.

There is something of a parallel here to Deleuze & Guattari, who similarly idolize the nomadic in their attempt to break with the sedentary, with the logic of the state. To them, just as to Amino, capitalism is ambivalent, impossible to categorize neatly. Their mode of thinking, just as in Amino's, is primarily dualistic – not to say manichean (or, as Yamaori Tetsuo says about Amino, "antithetical"). It is a thinking in which complexity is generated through the superimposition of a series of dualisms - nomadic/sedentary, striated/smooth, agricultural/non-agricultural, primitive/civilized, and so on - and a fruitful tension arises through the effort to relate them to each other.

The problems occur when phenomena can’t be captured dualistically. This is why the problem of capitalism is so significant to both Amino and Deleuze & Guattari. Is capitalism to be celebrated for its deterritorializing effects or resisted because of its reterritorializations? Has the nomadic been furthered by capitalism or not? Did muen retreat with the defeat of the "primitive" or is it part of the victorious capitalism?

Capitalism may well be a force that contributes to the weakening of the logic of sedentary or agricultural. But surely that doesn't mean that the nomadic impulse won't one day revolt against it, or that the idea of muen won't inspire a longing for a freedom beyond the freedom of capital.


Amino, Yoshihiko (1997) Nihon shakai no rekishi (The history of Japanese society), vol. 1, Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2001) Nihon chûsei toshi no sekai (The world of medieval Japanese cities), Tokyo: Chikuma shobô.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2002) “Jinruishiteki tenkanki ni okeru rekishigaku to Nihon” (History and Japan in a transformative period of humankind” (interview by Oguma Eiji), pp 143-232, in Amino & al ‘Nihon’ o megutte: Amino Yoshihiko taidan-shû (About ‘Japan’: Collection of conversations with Amino Yoshihiko), Tokyo: Kôdansha.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2003) 'Wasurareta Nihonjin' o yomu (Reading 'Forgotten Japanese'), Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2007) “Kyôkai ni ikiru hitobito – seibetsu kara senshi e” (People living in the margins: from sanctification to discrimination), pp 397-422, in Amino Yoshihiko chosakushî, Vol. 12: Muen Kugai Raku, Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Ozeki, Motoaki (2003) “Amino shigaku no mondai keiretsu” (The lineage of problems in Amino historiography), pp 29-57, in Kojita, Yasunao (ed) Amino shigaku no koekata – Atarashii rekishizô o motomete, Tokyo: Yumani shobô.

Sakurai, Eiji (2001) “Kaisetsu: ‘Muen’ron – ‘rô-marukishisuto’ no keikoku” (Commentary: About “muen” – the warning of an “old Marxist”), in Amino, Yoshihiko Nihon chûsei toshi no sekai (The world of medieval Japanese cities), Tokyo: Chikuma shobô.

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